The blue Chevrolet Sportvan packed with suspected illegal immigrants overturned around 1:40 p.m. while trying to avoid a spike strip that Border Patrol agents placed in its path, said Richard Kite, a Border Patrol spokesman at the scene. Twenty-eight people were in the van when it crashed.
Eight people suffered life-threatening injuries, while 13 were being treated for minor injuries, said Maurice Luque, a San Diego Fire-Rescue Department spokesman at the scene. Two helicopters and nine ambulances converged on the roadway to ferry the injured to four hospitals. There were no immediate reports of any fatalities.
The chase began when Border Patrol agents received reports that large numbers of illegal immigrants were being loaded into three vans in the Otay Mesa industrial district of San Diego, Kite said.
Border Patrol agents arrived there, stopped one of the vans and took suspected illegal immigrants into custody, Kite said. A second van struck a Border Patrol vehicle and a passenger car on the highway and came to a halt as it tried to make a U-turn. More suspected illegal immigrants were taken into custody. Kite did not know how many people were in the two vans.
The third van tumbled down an embankment, littering the roadway with water bottles, clothing and debris. Authorities closed the freeway and set up a triage center. At one point 10 people lay on stretchers and four men in handcuffs stood together.
Immigrant smugglers take extreme risks behind the wheels of vans packed with people, often driving at high speeds the wrong-way on highways to avoid a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint. They frequently to add to the risk by driving with their headlights turned off to avoid detection.
Last year, a van loaded with eight illegal Mexican immigrants slammed head-on into a pickup truck near Jamul, about 20 miles east of San Diego. Five people were killed.
In 2003, a Chevrolet Astro Van drove against oncoming traffic on Interstate 8 for about 17 miles before swerving back into the westbound lanes. The van, reaching speeds of about 100 mph, spun out of control and crashed, injuring 19 suspected illegal immigrants.